Building a 21st Century Transit System for Calgary

Calgary Transit is mired in the past, building an obsolete transit system designed for an archaic view of a city. Before the pandemic, transit carried 45 percent of downtown Calgary […]
Published on April 15, 2024

Calgary Transit is mired in the past, building an obsolete transit system designed for an archaic view of a city. Before the pandemic, transit carried 45 percent of downtown Calgary employees to work, but less than 10 percent of workers in the rest of the Calgary urban area, showing that Calgary Transit doesn’t really serve all of Calgary; it mainly serves downtown.

That would have worked in 1909, when Calgary’s first electric streetcars began operating and most jobs were downtown. By 2016, less than 15 percent of Calgary jobs were downtown, and the pandemic has reduced that number further.

Rather than design a transit system that serves the entire urban area, Calgary Transit light-rail system reinforced its downtown focus. Transit ridership has grown since the city’s first light-rail line opened in 1981, but it was growing faster before the light rail began operating than it has since then. Now Calgary Transit is planning even more downtown-oriented light-rail lines.

Light rail is an expensive form of low-capacity transit. The word “light” in light rail refers not to weight but to capacity: the American Public Transportation Association’s transit glossary defines light rail as “an electric railway with a ‘light volume’ traffic capacity.” While a light-rail train can hold a lot of people, for safety reasons a single light-rail line can move no more than about 20 trains per hour in each direction.

By comparison, Portland, Oregon runs 160 buses per hour down certain city streets. An Istanbul busway moves more than 250 buses per hour. Bogota Columbia busways move 350 buses per hour. All these transitways cost far less per mile than light rail yet can move more people per hour.

Once they leave a busway, buses can go on any city street, reaching far more destinations than rail. If a bus breaks down or a street is closed for some reason, other buses can find detours while a single light-rail breakdown can jam up an entire rail line. If transportation patterns change because of a pandemic, the opening of a new economic center, or the decline of an existing center, bus routes can change overnight while rail routes take years and cost hundreds of millions of dollars to change.

To truly serve the entire region, Calgary Transit must recognize that buses are faster, more flexible, and can move more people per hour to more destinations at a lower cost than any rail system. It should also recognize that modern urban areas have many economic centers and use buses to serve all those centers.

Besides downtown, Calgary’s major economic centers—the airport, the University of Calgary, Chinook Center, the Seton health center, and others—are mostly located near freeway on- and off-ramps. Calgary Transit should identify ten or so such centers geographically distributed around the region. It should locate transit centers—which need be no more than curbside parking reserved for buses with some modest bus shelters—near the freeway exchanges closest to each center.

It should then operate frequent (up to five times per hour) non-stop buses from every center to every other center. A few secondary transit centers might have non-stop buses operate to just two or three other centers. Local bus routes should radiate away from each center to serve every neighborhood of the Calgary urban area.

Since non-stop buses will operate at freeway speeds, the average speed of this bus system will be more than double the average speed of Calgary’s current bus-and-rail system. Transit riders will be able to get from any corner of the urban area to any other part of the urban area at speeds competitive with driving.

Such a polycentric system will serve a much higher percentage of the region’s workers and other travelers than the current monocentric system yet cost no more to operate. It will cost far less to build than a single rail line since most of the necessary infrastructure already exists. While some may worry that buses will get caught in congestion, the solution is to fix congestion for everyone, not spend billions on a slow rail system that only serves a few people in the region.

It is time for Calgary Transit to enter the 21st century. A polycentric bus system may be the best way to do it.

Randal O’Toole is a transportation policy analyst and author of Building 21st Century Transit Systems for Canadian Cities. 20 Pages, March 12, 2024.

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